On March 6, 2024

Crave away: this Vermont cookbook invites you to dip into creativity, find sustenance

By Karen Ranz

One year ago, the most recent cookbook by celebrated pastry chef, Gesine Bullock-Prado, “My Vermont Table Recipes for All (Six) Seasons,” hit the bookstore shelves as an immediate New York Times bestseller. Twelve months in, Vermont’s local booksellers report it’s a perennial favorite, copies going off the shelves in many cases to visitors buying a memento of Vermont to take home, one that can feel very personal.

It’s a lovely book, the kind of cookbook arranged by season that begs you to find a quiet moment, a comfy chair, maybe to put your feet up, a cup of something nearby, and enjoy spending some quiet time because, first, true to the “from my table / kitchen” genre of cookbook, this one promises wonderful stories. And they are wonderful. It’s a delightful story of an ambitious woman who actually did what many of us only dream of — she chucked it all and put down roots in Vermont, living close to the land, expanding the circle to include ducks and chickens and Mama, a goose; making not just a living as a self-taught master baker, but teaching. Living on six acres not far from White River Junction and Woodstock in a restored 1793 inn and tavern with a carriage house converted for teaching and filming (and a husband that cleans up) would be a dream scenario for most of us, especially those who aspire to baking beautiful breads, cakes and pastries.

It announces itself as an ambitious cookbook from the flyleaf photo of a vol au vent — multitudes of delicate layers of pastry beautifully holding a tiny arrangement of blanched crudités and a bean puree, mirrored to great effect in what appears to be polished black granite.

It’s blessed with an abundance of tremendously good photography and a layout that draws you in and carries you through. What makes life good — meeting someone new and learning how to do something — is one aspect the book offers. But the dream, the idyll, is breaking with the grind, whatever that is, and finding a more meaningful existence in a beautiful state where a soul can find sustenance. There’s much that’s happily escapism. And there’s much to find in the recipes, plans to make, days to spend tackling ambitious projects. It’s a book you want to take in.

Asked what recipes she’s most proud of, it’s the versatile milk bread recipe, the oatbread that her students are baking and eating. There are sourdough and salt rising breads too. She mentions Pulled Pork Sliders on soft buns. If a book can convey heart, it would have to be the Zwetschgendatschi (Yeasted Plum Cake) and her tribute to a German mother who was obviously very dear. Any baker who offers two recipes featuring fresh plums is a baker with both heart and soul.

Teaching is as much her element as baking; there’s ease with nuanced instructions, an encouraging tone, visual and tactile cues, and when called for, easy methods for fixing things that might go wrong — so much more than merely sequence and timing. She insists that anyone can master recipes that might seem daunting.

Other bakery recipes include Dog Team Tavern Sticky Buns, a luscious Apple Tart Tatin, Wild Blueberry Turnovers ensconced in laminated pastry crazy with sanding sugar, and Sourdough Discard English Muffins. The Ramp Pesto Twist Bread is an absolutely gorgeous variation of a sweet babka definitely worth the effort for an occasion.

There is cake! There are cookies too! There’s much to celebrate, certainly, with baking.

On the savory side there’s an elegantly simple Roast Turkey a la Helga, Sisters’ Gravy (the sister being the other Bullock — of film), Maple Glazed Carrots, and Butternut Squash Fritters. And while there seems to be an abundance of specialty ingredients for much of it — especially beyond Vermont — it’s delightful to learn that the fruit gel that is canned cranberry sauce is perfect for Cranberry Crumble Shortbread. It’s a perfect fruit gel in some ways!

It’s on the chef de cuisine side of the kitchen where the book occasionally stumbles, often what a more deft editor would smooth: two whole cloves swimming freestyle in a Dutch oven of braised red cabbage, two to three hours for that turkey to roast… The index can be problematic, disappointing because of the book’s arrangement by season.     

In too many cases the impulse is to dash for the equipment corner, a sous vide and food mill or ricer frequently called for, sometimes at the expense of technique. Even the salt rising bread relies on having a bath encased in plastic in precisely heated water. The admonition to grind your own cardamom is backed up by no instruction on what to expect with cardamom pods.

But if your itch to scratch is a beautiful book you can have to dip into when a calm and inspiring moment is what you crave most, crave away. Find a comfy chair. You might decide to teach yourself something new. And wouldn’t that be good!

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